Steeple of Fyre
Commoners Crown (1975, 38.34) ***½/½Little Sir Hugh
Bach Goes to Limerick
Dogs and Ferrets
New York Girls
Steeleye Span (named for a mythical figure from a traditional song lyric) began as a Fairport Convention offshoot, going on to become the Fairports' only serious contender, commercially, in the British folk-rock stakes. 1975's Commoners [sic.] Crown, their seventh album, continued in the vein of its immediate predecessors, accessible folk-rock, reworking traditional songs in a (relatively) contemporary style, highlights including opener Little Sir Hugh, the classic Long Lankin and Maddy Prior's beautiful multi-overdubbed Weary Cutters. Not so sure about closer New York Girls, mind... Peter Sellers on ukulele and Goon voices? Maybe not. I'm not sure whether or not it's a good thing that an extra burst of said voices, originally found at the end of the album, have been excised from some CD versions.
An unknown musician (there's no keyboard credit of any sort) plays Mellotron strings on Long Lankin, drifting in and out of the mix throughout its eight-minute length, quite distinct from Peter Knight's violin. There's a definite 'non-crediting' going on here, as there's no mention of the pianist on Dogs And Ferrets, either. All in all, a fine album, if adhering to my general 'Steeleye album' rule, viz.: 'two classics, several decent, some filler'. Whatever, certainly worth hearing for folk-rock fans.
Steeple of Fyre (1999?, 40.45) ***/TStiletto Fingernails/Backstreets of Purgatory
He to Me
A Million Years Ago
She's Just a Ghost Now
Steeple of Fyre are yet another Ventricle act, along with Angel Provocateur, Mauve Sideshow et al., so you're pretty safe in assuming it's full of what they describe as 'ethereal female vocals'; ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Darkwave. Ventricle's schtick is to have several different projects running concurrently, utilising various members of the same pool of musicians, each subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) different to each other, so Mauve Sideshow's abrasive experimentalism and Angel Provocateur's drifting soundscapes are both very different to Steeple of Fyre's, er, drifting experimentalism, all of which differ from Torn Curtain's take on the style.
Steeple of Fyre isn't the easiest of listens, but is nowhere near the label's further-out acts, avoiding any actual abrasiveness. While Dusty Lee's Mellotron strings can be heard on three of the six tracks, he keeps it sparse this time (sadly), with just the odd chord here and there, leaving the OTT use for Angel Provocateur. If you're into the label's sound, you'll like this, but the casual listener/Mellotron fan would be advised to look elsewhere.
See: Angel Provocateur | Kangaroo Kourt | Mauve Sideshow | Torn Curtain
Opening Act (1983, 41.32/49.19) ***½/T½
Just a Fantasy
The Pandemonium Shadow Show
Five Studded Poker Player
Five By Five
Just a Fantasy (acoustic)]
Stencil Forest (taking their name from a Happy the Man track) were a one-off early '80s pomp outfit, not dissimilar to Styx, Kansas and maybe Saga, amongst others. Doug Andresen has the sort of voice purpose-built for AOR, though he would've made a good prog singer, too, particularly in that 'American style' (think: Kansas, Starcastle), and the rest of the band have the style down pat. So why didn't they make it? Why don't so many decent bands make it? A huge helping hand from Lady Luck tends to be needed (sounds a bit like one of their lyrics, actually), and merely being 'good' clearly isn't enough. Stencil Forest were also unfortunate enough to fall chronologically between the late-'70s pomp boom, such as it was, and '80s AOR; the average AOR fan may well have found them too 'clever' for their tastes, and they would probably have been considered slightly dated by then.
Opening Act is a decent enough album of its type, although it suffers slightly from an 'indie label' production (listen to the 'harmonies' on bonus track Five By Five, admittedly from a decade later), despite a remix for CD. It also sometimes tips over into Journey-esque AOR territory, a statement likely to trigger one of two reactions in the listener, only one of them good. Album highlights, certainly for the prog fan, are the lengthy Kansas-like The Pandemonium Shadow Show and (relatively) complex closer Five Studded Poker Player, although if you have a low tolerance for the style, you'd be advised to avoid it all together, to be honest. Frank Cassella played Mellotron on the album, although I've no idea if he actually owned one, or used a studio/hire machine. Celestial Voices combines a string part with synth strings, but the album's chief 'Tron track is Indian Summer, with strings throughout, although the Mellotron's a pretty minor player overall, falling well behind Cassella's organ, piano, mono- and string synths.
Opening Act would probably have remained a total obscurity, had the band not reformed in the early 2000s and reissued it themselves, before releasing a new album, The Abyss, in 2006. You may have gathered by now that this is an album for pomp fans, and anyone seeking harder-edged prog should look elsewhere. Not much Mellotron, but plenty of pomp. Worth the effort.
Red Weather (1969, 38.17) ***½/TAnother Dose of Life
I Grow Higher
If You Choose Too
Chicken Pot Pie
Leigh Stephens, guitarist with the infamous Blue Cheer, was chucked out of the band after their second album, apparently for not doing drugs (!) He moved briefly to the UK, recording Red Weather in London in early '69 with the usual suspects, including keyboardists Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins. Does it sound like Blue Cheer? Nope: more like The Dead, to be honest; it's certainly got some of that San Fran psych sound, although it's a bit of a mish-mash stylewise. Then again, since when did any of those bands achieve anything remotely like consistency in any area? The album's stronger material includes opener Another Dose Of Life, with its acid guitar interjections, I Grow Higher and the title track, and while there's nothing actually bad here, the aptly-named Drifting goes on a bit, while If You Choose Too is a bit too piano-boogie-by-numbers for its own good.
I thought I was going to get through the whole album without hearing any Mellotron, especially as the last track's called Chicken Pot Pie. Nope: although it's an instrumental acoustic-ish psych-folk number, it's got somebody (Stephens? Hopkins?) playing an interesting MkII strings part that enhances the track nicely. Anyway; while not essential, fans of that late-'60s US psych thing who haven't heard this before will lap it up, although it's not worth it on the Mellotron front.
Weißes Gold (1978, 37.48) ****/½Ouvertüre
Des Goldes Bann
Der Weite Weg (1979, 41.29) ***/T½Die Sage
Gib Mir, Was du Geben Kannst
Der Weite Weg
Reise Zum Mittelpunkt des Menschen [as Stern Meissen] (1981, 38.54) ****/TTT½Allein
Stundenschlag [as Stern Meissen] (1982, 40.03) **½/TTAlso Was Soll aus Mir Werden
Der Eine und der Andere
In der Selben Bahn
Leben Möcht' ich
Stern-Combo Meissen were, to an extent, a typical East German progressive outfit, veering between prog and more mainstream music, presumably to keep the authorities happy. 1977's Stern-Combo Meissen (***½) is a live recording, free of any Mellotronic involvement, although not a bad album, with a reasonable version of that old classical warhorse, Mussorgsky's Night On Bare/Bald Mountain. Their follow-up, Weißes/Weisses Gold is a bit of a monster, though, being a mature, sophisticated piece of progressive rock, recorded with a choir and an orchestra, which makes Mellotron-spotting (from Lothar Kramer or Thomas Kurzhals) a bit of a nightmare. In fact, the only thing I can hear that even might be is a few seconds of flutes is Ouvertüre and even then, I could be mistaken. Great album, even allowing for the unfortunate ELP-isms on the organ front, but not for the Mellotron.
After the symphonic grandeur of Weißes Gold, Der Weite Weg is irritatingly straightforward, although it starts promisingly enough with the seven-minute Die Sage. The following three tracks are all pretty horrible, the album only being partially redeemed by the twelve-minute Der Frühling, based on some Vivaldi. Mellotron on two tracks only, Der Motor and Der Frühling, both with strings, often doubled on string synth, making it hard to tell in places what's playing what.
Two years on, Reise Zum Mittelpunkt des Menschen is, oddly, a distinct improvement, although it would prove to be the now abbreviated Stern Meissen's last prog gasp. The band utilise quite a 'modern' approach, with sequenced bass figures and polysynths all round, sounding a little like a cross between UK and ELP in places. The material is so much better than on their previous effort that it almost sounds like a different band. Loads of Mellotron, to boot; strings (plus that on/off string synth) all over the place, with only short opener Allein being exempt. Romanze is the classic here, with more Mellotron strings than you can shake a stick at (should you, for some strange reason, wish to do such a thing). More than worth the effort. Unsurprisingly, the following year's Stundenschlag is distressingly mainstream; the jazzy, violin-driven, nine-minute Das Paar harks back to their earlier work, although the title track and El Salvador are particularly bad examples of the band's new-found interest in appalling mainstream pop. There's a surprising amount of Mellotron to be heard, with strings on both Also Was Soll Aus Mir Werden and Der Eine Und Der Andere (though only just on the latter) and brief bursts of choir and strings on closer Leben Möcht' Ich, but not enough of anything to actually make it worth buying.
So; for the Mellotron, Reise Zum Mittelpunkt des Menschen is the only Stern Meissen album actually worth owning, although Weißes Gold is a damn' good record, too. Stern-Combo Meissen isn't bad and Der Weite Weg and even Stundenschlag have their moments, too, but don't go too far out of your way for any of them. Incidentally, a 1996 release, Live, recorded two decades earlier, has Mellotron credited, but actually features string synth.
Faded Dreams (1979, 38.35) **/T
Georgia Sunday Morning
The Jester's Friend
Rainbow Suite: Rainbow Song/
Over the Rainbow
Back to Normal
The Music Never Lies
Old Man Time
Brian Stevens is a long- (who said 'deservedly'?) forgotten American singer-songwriter with a terrible haircut and a rather overblown vocal style. I have no idea whether he recorded again (or, indeed, before), but 1979's Faded Dreams is a pretty typical document of its era; in fact, probably a more honest one than its better-known contemporaries, as it was produced without major-label interference. Saying that, cheesy disco opener Turquoise Lady was clearly intended as single material, while the bluesy Georgia Sunday Morning and the jazzy Back To Normal were presumably considered 'sophisticated', although the record's default setting is the rather dull, mainstream balladic pop/rock to be heard on every other track, to one degree or another. If there's a 'best track', it's Pearls, opening with two minutes of ambient sound before the song itself kicks in, building up to a rocky conclusion and the album's only decent guitar solo.
J.R. Dennis plays credited Mellotron on The Jester's Friend, with interweaving flutes in the intro and choirs backing real voices later on (listen for the key-click). Are you going to track a copy of this down, all assuming you might wish to? Almost certainly not, but I wouldn't worry too much, even for one reasonable Mellotron track. Thanks, as so often, to Mark Medley for unearthing this late '70s time capsule.
Foreigner (1973, 36.08) ***/½"Foreigner Suite"
How Many Times
100 I Dream
I've heard rumours for a while that Cat Stevens used Mellotron, but having finally been pointed in the right direction, it's hardly the most prominent use ever... His 1973 concept effort, Foreigner, features his only side-long piece in the "Foreigner Suite", and while it's more palatable than his usual bedsitter/wetter singer-songwriter stuff, don't expect some sort of prog epic. Don't expect much 'Tron, either; a few string chords here and there, presumably played by Cat himself, noticeably different from the real strings used on the piece, although I've no idea why he bothered.
Anyway, Cat, these days known as Yusuf Islam, appears to be in the process of emerging from his extremely lengthy, religion-induced retirement, which has to be good news for his long-suffering fans. Don't go expecting a repeat of his lavish '70s tours, though... Don't bother with this album for the Mellotron, either.
Official Yusuf site
Misty (1975, 34.47) **½/T
Indian Love Call
Over the Rainbow
Oh, Lonesome Me
Take Care of Business
Lady of Spain
Harold Ray "Ray Stevens" Ragsdale occupies an unusual position as a comedy country composer and singer, his biggest hits including Everything Is Beautiful, Indian Love Call and novelty effort The Streak. His twelfth album, 1975's Misty, consists largely of countryfied covers of popular songs from the pre-rock'n'roll era, more notable versions including the semi-yodelled Indian Love Call and a jazz/funk/country (!) take on Over The Rainbow.
Stevens plays Mellotron on two tracks, with a lush string part on Oh, Lonesome Me and less of the same on Young Love; hardly essential, but always nice to hear. Sadly, although still very much active, Stevens has seriously blotted his copy-book in recent years by involving himself with wingnut far-right Tea Party-style politics. Misty harks back to a more innocent time, when health reforms that might stop people dying because they can't afford treatment aren't seen as 'socialist'. No-one's laughing now, Ray...
Brighter Days (1999, 49.30) **½/T
|She's Fading Away
To Be Loved
End of the Afternoon
Well Worn Love
Then I Had This Dream
Van Said (Sha La La)
The Last Embrace
Don't Go Far
Deep Dark Night
'Adult alternative': that's how I've seen Curtis Stigers described. 'Jazz', too. Jazz? Not going by his third effort, Brighter Days, he isn't. Is this what passed for music in the '90s? And there we were thinking it was better than the '80s. 'Adult contemporary pop', maybe. 'Dull-as-ditchwater adult slop', more like. Actually, it's a lot less offensive than many similar I've forced myself to sit through recently, just completely dullsville, which is better than total shitsville, I suppose. Standout tracks? None. Don't be silly.
Credited Mellotron on one track, from (John) Phil(ip) Shenale, who keeps changing his name, which doesn't help anyone. Anyway, a background string part followed by some reasonably nice flutes, although they don't really add anything much to the song. So; more tedious 'adult' pap. Buy something else.
Lything (2009, 37.45) ***½/T½Through the Grain
Footprints in the Garden
Hour of the Wolf
Still Light are the British/American trio of Kirill Nikolai, Lucy Hague and, er, Sand Snowman, whose debut, 2009's Lything, is a beautiful, ghostly album of haunted folk tunes and the spectre of drone-rock. Highlights include opener Through The Grain, Footprints In The Garden, an ambient piece underpinning a recording of the reminiscences of an elderly British lady who'd grown up in colonial India and the lengthy, harmonium-driven August, but, essentially, it's all good.
Nikolai plays (real?) Mellotron, with distant strings on Through The Grain and A Remedy, sounding just about good enough to be genuine. Or not? Anyway, a lovely album, recommended to folkies and lo-fi fans, although probably not worth it for its Mellotron use.
100 Year Thing (1998, 49.23) **½/T
|100 Year Thing
Lucifer & Jane
If I Were a Mountain
|God Won't Make You a Man
Tears of Envy
Doors to the World
Like many others, Stephen Stills' son Chris suffers from 'famous parent syndrome': Jakob Dylan, Baxter Dury, Adam Cohen, Anna Waronker... The list goes on and on. Unlike many, however, he seems to have some genuine talent, although whether he'd have got a contract with Atlantic under his own steam is a moot point... Did I hear someone squeak, "Nepotism"? That's not Chris' fault, though and who's going to turn down the chance to get their music out into the world on a major-label budget? Almost no-one, which is why so many people get fucked over by the majors, but that's another story.
Still's debut, 1998's 100 Year Thing, sounds in places like it could've been made by someone of his dad's generation, although it has an overall late '90s feel, more due to the production than any quirk of his songwriting, I suspect. Said songwriting, sadly, is as cliché-ridden as his dad's least impressive work, full of entreaties to 'keep on singing the blues' and the like, all of which sounded dated by, ooh, 1974. This isn't actually bad, but nor is it that good and Still's voice is rather too ordinary to tackle this kind of stuff; the reason many of his dad's generation succeeded was a combination of great voices and immense joie de vivre, neither of which Stills minor seems to possess. Ethan Johns acts as Stills' jack-of-all-trades here, playing various keyed and stringed instruments across the album, including a Chamberlin, with strings on Last Stop and Desert Sands, although the strings on closer Doors To The World are real.
Overall, then, not that exciting, with little tape-replay, although anyone looking for a lost early '70s singer-songwriter effort could do worse than to purchase this, roll up a fat one and pretend they're twenty-one again; the rest of you should probably go elsewhere.